The Retro Bin: Little Muppet Monsters (1985)

Mark this day on your calendars, for you’re about to witness something historic: we’re about to dig into the first Retro Bin entry that’s not about a Hanna-Barbera cartoon! It’s not that we have a grudge against HB, it’s just that the Retro Boxes typically cover toons from the 70’s through 90’s, and HB produced a lot of stuff during that era, so there’s a lot of that studio’s shows to cover. But we don’t just riff on Hanna-Barbera’s retro-cheese, we’re equal opportunity wise-crackers. Now, on with the review:

Today we’ll be looking at Jim Henson’s Little Muppet Monsters, an extremely short-lived live-action/puppet/animation hybrid series which ran briefly on CBS. If you don’t remember this show, that’s hardly surprising; Little Muppet Monsters is one of those shows that takes longer to talk about than it actually ran, which was for exactly 3 weeks from September 14 to September 28, 1985.

First, a little history is required: in order to review Little Muppet Monsters, one must first familiarize ourselves with CBS SatAM at that time. Into the WABAC machine….
The year was 1985. CBS was riding high on the success of their Saturday morning cartoon series Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies, which was itself based on a brief but highly popular musical fantasy sequence from the film The Muppets Take Manhattan, released a year earlier in 1984, in which Miss Piggy poses the hypothetical question of what it might have been like if the Muppet Show gang had known each other when they were little. Muppet Babies was therefore based entirely in un-reality, which is good because if one were to ever stop and ponder the show in any kind of canonical fashion, it would only raise a ton of puzzling unanswerable questions, such as: why, if only 2 of the Muppet Babies, Scooter and Skeeter, were related, did they all live together in the same house? And where were their parents? Nanny (voiced by Barbara “June Cleaver” Billingsley) was clearly just a domestic and not the owner of the place. So just where and what was this house with no master where the Muppets lived? (It might have been more plausible if the producers had made the house a nursery school or a day care center.) And speaking of Scooter, why was he even there? On The Muppet Show, Scooter was just a kid while the other characters were adults, so logically, neither he nor Kermit’s nephew Robin should have been on MB at all, as realistically they weren’t even gleams in their moms’ eyes during that time. And what was the deal with Bunsen and Beaker? They didn’t live with the other Babies; they just occasionally visited, so where did they live, and who was in charge of them? And why and how does a baby (albeit a baby scientist) have a baby assistant? How does that work? Or perhaps Bunsen and Beaker were/are brothers? And why was Baby Piggy still macking on Baby Kermit? If we’re supposed to believe that for this series, Kermit and Piggy grew up together and were raised together in the same house no less, then they should feel more like brother and sister. And what was up with Animal? Since when was he “younger” than the others, like they tried to established on the show? I suppose they just needed a reason to explain why he was the way he was, i.e., more feral and animal-like than the actual animals on the show. I had always suspected that his behavior was due to years of living the hardcore rock-and-roll lifestyle, months on the road, wild parties, alleged sex with groupies and years of being fried had simply taken their toll on him. There I go over-thinking things again. Muppet Babies is just one of those shows where it’s best to check your brain at the door and simply roll with it, as any hint of logic would’ve killed the entire series.
-Incidentally, I know I haven’t said much about Little Muppet Monsters yet, but given the show’s lifetime was so brief, there really isn’t much to say about it other than “It happened”. Anywho, Muppet Babies was a huge ratings hit; it did so well in its’ first season that CBS wanted to expand the show to an hour, thus Team Henson created a second show to fill out an additional half-hour; the combined venture was called Jim Henson’s Muppets, Babies and Monsters.
“The concept of this second half-hour was neither simple nor particularly well-developed,” according to storyboard director Scott Shaw. LMM focused on a trio of live-action (Muppet) monster kids named Tug, Boo and Molly. The 3 offered little in the way of characterization, as the series wasn’t around long enough for any of them to establish any solid identities. Tug and Boo were brothers and Molly was the token girl, but beyond that there wasn’t much to say about them. The show’s premise was that the trio had started their own TV station from the basement of the adult Muppets’ home (so wait, all of the Muppets live together in one house? Was this the same continuity as Muppets from Space?) which broadcasts only to the TV sets in the house upstairs, after an incident where Scooter has them put in the basement after Molly and Boo played water polo in the living room. (Again, huh? Since when is Scooter any kind of authority figure? It’s amazing how even Henson studio tends to forget that Scooter’s just a kid.) The kids were joined by Nicky Napoleon and his Emperor Penguins as their music act/house band.
The ‘shows’ broadcast on this quasi TV station were mostly recycled segments from The Muppet Show, only in animated form (CBS must’ve figured if kids will watch animated Muppet Babies, they’ll watch animated Muppet everything else), such as “Pigs in Space”, “Muppet Sport Shorts” featuring Animal for some reason (the dude’s a rocker, not a jock), “Fozzie’s Comedy Corner” in which a live-action Fozzie Bear tells variations on the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke as an animated stick-figure chicken does strange things on-screen, “Gonzo’s Freaky Facts and Oddball Achievements,” pretty much the same basic idea as “Comedy Corner” only with Gonzo acting as host instead of Fozzie and the emphasis being on weirdness rather than jokes.  The final segment of each show was “Kermit the Frog: Private Eye”, allegedly film noir parodies starring Kermit as a Sam Spade-esque detective and Fozzie as his assistant, but they would usually drift away from this go off on some irrelevant tangent; the stories typically rambled and faltered and rarely came to any logical conclusion. As with the show as a whole, one really couldn’t say anything about the segments beyond, “OK, so that happened.”
As per tradition, here’s the show’s opening:


Of the thirteen episodes that were produced, only three of them ever aired (and some of the remaining 10 epsiodes were incomplete at the time of cancellation). Ironically, it was Jim Henson himself who decided to pull the plug; Henson Associates and CBS agreed that the concept had never been properly thought out and just wasn’t up to Henson’s high standards. A quote from the man himself:

“I’ve always felt that the juxtapositioning of live-action and animated Muppets invited an unfavorable comparison, to which the cartoon version inevitably suffered; the puppetry was just too good. The combination of Muppet babies, adults and kid monsters was very disorienting. Also, due to a lack of development time, the concept — and therefore, the writing and designs — never quite jelled.”

The now-vacant second half-hour was filled with repeats from Muppet Babies‘ 1st season. The ratings stayed strong, and everyone was happy. The only traces of LMM’s existence was the 6-note bridge from the LMM theme song, which remained part of Muppet Babies‘ closing title sequence throughout the remainder of the show’s run as well as syndication. Also, in another of TV’s great ironies, in 1990, segments of the animated “Pigs in Space” and “Kermit the Frog, Private Eye” from the second episode of Little Muppet Monsters titled “Space Cowboys” were re-shown in the final episode of Muppet Babies titled “Eight Flags Over the Nursery”.

Today, Little Muppet Monsters is no more. The series has yet to turn up on DVD, and given that most people have either forgotten about LMM or simply had no idea that it ever existed at all, it’s unlikely that it ever will. Some of the puppet models for the Monster characters have since been re-used for other purposes:

  • Boo Monster appears in The Jim Henson Hour episode “Science Fiction.” He is seen as an audience member of the “Miss Galaxy” pageant.
  • Boo Monster appears in The Cosby Show episode “Cliff’s Nightmare.”
  • Tug Monster made a background cameo in the opening of The Muppets at Walt Disney World.
  • The puppet for Tug Monster was later seen in Nick Jr.’s Muppet Time as Do Re Mi Monster and was later seen as different customers in Mopatop’s Shop.

Finally, in yet another great irony, all 3 central characters: Tug Monster, Molly Monster, and Boo Monster were seen briefly in the special The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years, which was broadcast on January 21, 1986. The special was shot before the suggestion was made to take Little Muppet Monsters off the air, so the show cheerfully celebrated the Muppets’ latest production and the newest additions to the Muppet family—even though that production had been canceled four months earlier.

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2 Comments

  1. My most vivid memory of Little Muppet Monsters is of the shows' 2nd episode: The Muppet Monsters wanted to make a movie and were continually debating on whether they were going to make their movie a wild west flick or a sci-fi epic. Finally, they decided to compromise and make it a sci-fi western, which led to Tug signing a song (like Muppet Babies, this show had a regulation 1 musical number per episode) about being a space cowboy. I thought that the mixing of 2 different genres was a pretty good idea. It would be interesting to see how LMM would've turned out if it had been given the time to properly develop instead of being rushed into production.

    “CBS must've figured if kids will watch animated Muppet Babies, they'll watch animated Muppet everything else.”

    I'm thinking that's true, because 2 years after Muppet Babies' debut, Henson Associates (HA!) produced an animated Fraggle Rock SatAM cartoon for NBC which ran for only a single season (1987). Many of the scripts were virtually identical to those of the HBO puppet series. The only difference aside from this FG being animated and having different voice actors voicing the characters, the episodes were typically two 15 minute shorts instead of being one 22 minute episode, so there was really no reason do watch this show at all unless you didn't have HBO.

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  2. Thing is, the reason Muppet Babies (the show which started all this) was animated in the first place was for practical rather than artistic reasons. The baby Muppets sequence from The Muppets Take Manhattan was reportedly one of THE longest sequences that the crew ever had to shoot, largely due to the diminutive size of the puppet characters, so doing a weekly series in that fashion would have been unfeasible as it would've taken too long to shoot; they'd have never met the scheduling deadlines. Somewhere down the line either or CBS or HA! or both parties seem to have forgotten that and just figured “animated Muppets are hot right now”, despite how several people within the industry (including people who worked for Henson) felt that converting puppetry to animation negated both art forms.

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